Learning To Listen

by Eric J. Weiner

We find our voice in solitude, and we bring it to public and private conversations that enrich our capacity for self-reflection. Now that circle has been disrupted; there is a crisis in our capacity to be alone and together. But we are in flight from those face-t0-face conversations that enrich our imaginations and shepherd the imagined into the real. There is a crisis in our ability to understand others and be heard. — Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation

Although there might be nothing wrong with our hearing, we are quickly losing our ability to practice three formative modalities of democratic listening: Mindful, Aesthetic and Critical. These three modalities support our active participation in sustained, intimate conversations where we learn with and from each other. Millennials in particular struggle to listen to their friends, parents, and teachers for more than a few seconds without their brains becoming distracted by the ubiquitous hand of technology.[1] Adding to the distractions of technology, both adults and children, when in dialogue, confuse waiting for their turn to talk with the practice of democratic listening. Although we are hardwired for grammar;[2] cognitively mapped to construct, comprehend, and interpret meanings that arise from the soundscapes of language, culture and history; and can distinguish sound patterns, dissonances, silences, and noises in the ether,[3] the brain listens only to what the mind is prepared to hear.[4]

In our current historical conjuncture, the mind is not prepared nor is it being prepared to hear the pangs of hunger in the discourse of poverty; the terrorizing memories of male violence and sexual assault from the mother-tongue of surviving women; the anxieties of dis-ease and economic insecurity in the angry and disillusioned voices of youth; the brutality of homelessness in the quiet drawings of children who sleep in cars and shelters; the academic discourse of white supremacy deeply embedded within the sterilized language of meritocracy; the communality of working-class culture splattered in blood, sweat, and country; the groan of disability pushing against the structural forces of ableism; the tongue-tying of identity within sequestered spaces of difference; the diverse voices of radical love driving the outrage against fascist machineries of death; the intubated wheezing of dying democracies; the hushed courage of LGBTQ+ people navigating the heteronormative and cis-gendered architecture of everyday life; and the incessant white noise of power burying the refrain of negative freedom in the hook of capitalist opportunity. That which the mind is not prepared to hear negates our capacity to listen and understand, to learn from those most in need, and to be mindful, aesthetically sensitive, and critically awake to the radical possibilities that arise out of deep and meaningful conversation.

From this perspective, democratic listening, like its genetic siblings literacy and learning, should be understood as a social practice.

“Such a view,” writes Lave, “invites a rethinking of the notion of learning, treating it as an emerging property of whole persons’ legitimate peripheral participation in communities of practice. Such a view sees mind, culture, history, and the social world as interrelated processes that constitute each other, and intentionally blurs social scientists’ divisions among component parts of persons, their activities, and the world.”[5] Lave’s work (in concert with many others over several decades and across continents, languages, and cultures) brings us to a compelling general theory of learning and literacy called New Literacy Studies.[6] This work, in turn, provides the scaffolding for James Gee’s notion of the “social mind,” which, for reasons I will discuss, is rapidly deteriorating into the “anti-social mind.”[7] The anti-social mind is unprepared and deskilled, and, as a consequence, is unable and unwilling to practice the kind of listening that radical democracies and convivial communities require.[8]

Being able to engage in the practice of mindful, aesthetic and critical listening (all of which I will briefly describe at the end of this essay) is as important to democracy as literacy. Yet, in comparison to the time and money put into early childhood reading development or STEM within schools in the United States, these three modalities of democratic listening receive scant attention. This may be because educators mistakenly believe that if students can hear and comprehend the spoken word, then they must already know how to listen. The literacy correlate is to think that just because a student knows phonics and has a basic comprehension of written language, she knows how to make inferences or can visualize and hear the text. Or they have mistakenly assumed that listening is a passive activity and therefore has no associative skills or habits of mind that need to be learned and developed. The literacy correlate here is to think that meanings are to be discovered within the text and do not arise from the transaction between the reader and the text.[9]

The mindful, aesthetic and critical modalities of democratic listening require the listener and speaker to understand how language-in-conversation is looping through a complex process of encoding and decoding. Although beyond the scope of this essay, encoding describes the cultural/pedagogical process by which the speaker’s words attain meaning. Decoding describes the cultural/pedagogical process by which those meanings are decoded by the listener. First theorized in the context of television discourse by Stuart Hall, the communicative model of encoding/decoding has implications far beyond his initial focus.[10]

Although given attention in the fields of communication, media, business, music, and psychology, the idea of listening as a social practice within the traditional school context is generally ignored or discounted. It’s replaced by a notion of listening that I call “disciplined listening.” It is disconnected from the social mind and lacking any coherent philosophy of language. This is a form of listening that is understood as something good students (i.e., attentive, smart and well-behaved) do naturally. It allows them to efficiently learn from their teachers or, at the very least, perform well on standardized tests and receive good grades. Disciplined listening is similar to the kind of listening a well-trained dog might do if he comes to heel when his owner calls his name followed by a command to “come!” or some other arbitrary sound from which the dog has been trained to respond.

Within traditional models of schooling, disciplined listening is rationalized within a system of disciplinary logic; that is, it reinforces the authority of the teacher while diminishing or silencing the voices of the students. Good students practice disciplined listening not because they want to learn or retain information (they might, but it’s not a requirement), but because they will be rewarded if they do and punished if they don’t. The reality is that most of what students hear from their teachers, whether they are “good” students or “bad,” smart or dim, they forget in large part and rather quickly. Research shows most people retain about twenty-five percent of what they learn through the kind of disciplinary listening that is required to be successful in a traditional school setting.

Disciplinary listening also signals a unidirectional exchange between teachers and students. The students listen and the teacher talks. Within this pedagogical model, it is the teacher’s voice that matters most. In order to be successful in this environment, students must learn to listen to teacher-talk in a way that allows them to retain the central meanings of the lesson in the time it takes to be assessed on their memory of these central issues. Hidden within this pedagogy is both an authoritarian model of teacher authority (i.e., illiberal and undemocratic) and student resistance in the form of willfully refusing to listen to the teacher talk (i.e., bored, distracted, inattentive, disengaged, and disconnected).

Yet, even in more progressive educational structures, the importance of developing and nurturing student “voice” is given much more priority than teaching students how to mindfully, aesthetically, and critically listen to each other. Where dialogue is one of the essential strategies of learning/teaching, as it is in critical pedagogy, democratic education, or culturally responsive teaching, the silence around the importance of developing a habitus of mindful, aesthetic and critical listening is problematic; the dialogic, democratic, and Socratic classroom risks becoming a democratic “safe-space” of cross-talking voices that no one, except (maybe) for the teacher, can actually hear.

In these progressive pedagogical spaces, everyone has a voice, yet no one has learned how to listen. Listening, as I am describing it, is the dialectic of voice. Where voice is the linguistic expression of experience, power and knowledge, these intersecting modalities of democratic listening are the engines of understanding, empathy, reflection, and compassion. As important as it is to create the structural conditions that can amplify the silenced voices of oppressed and subaltern people, it is equally important that everyone learns how these different modalities shape the process by which people can connect and learn through conversation.

Mindful listening is to be present in the conversing moment; to be reflective and reflexive; to be sensitive to tone, voice, language (vocabulary, syntax, accent, pace), body, scent, facial movements, the eyes and brow, the ball of a fist, the openness of shoulders, the twisting of hair, or the crossing of ankles or legs. Mindful listeners are transported in the flow of language and ideas. We travel in stories together, deeply intertwined in imagined worlds that arise at the intersection of our shared words and meanings. Maybe this is what Jean-Luc Nancy was thinking when he wrote that “Sonority is time and meaning.”[11] When we are being mindful listeners in the context of conversation and dialogue, the world around us slowly blurs and disappears; time seems to slow. When we finally look at the clock, many hours have passed while we were “lost” deep in each other’s language.

Aesthetic listeners hear the intrinsic beauty in all spoken language. The late Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, considered this an ethical issue. He rejected the idea that some languages were cultivated while others were vulgar.[12] All language deserves to be listened to with patience and respect. When we say someone’s language “sounds” ignorant or ugly, we are creating a barrier to listening to what the person is actually trying to say. Lisa Delpit adds nuance to Freire’s ethical appeal when she points out that people’s perception of someone’s language actually reveals how they think about the people who speak it. For example, in the United States, it is not uncommon for people who live in the Northeast to think that people from the Southeast sound slow and stupid. My students generally admit that if I spoke like some version of Rocky Balboa (being from Philly, I do a pretty good impression) they would immediately question my intelligence and credentials. Although these judgements are focused on how certain languages sound to specific minds, they hide deeper dispositions of bigotry, racism, class elitism, sexism, etc. Gloria Anzaldúa says it powerfully:

So, if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity–I am my language…Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate, while I still have to speak English or Spanish when I would rather speak Spanglish, and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate…I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing. I will have my voice. Indian, Spanish, white. I will have my serpent’s tongue–my woman’s voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence.[13]

The critical listener is attentive to how ideology and power do more than simply infiltrate language; they determine its content and mediate the interplay of shared consciousness between the listener and speaker. In his work on the philosophy of language, Volosinov explained, “The word is the ideological phenomenon par excellence…A word is the purest and most sensitive medium of social intercourse.” He is worth quoting at length:

It is owing to this exclusive role of the word as the medium of consciousness that the word functions as an essential ingredient accompanying all ideological creativity whatsoever. The word accompanies and comments on each and every ideological act. The processes of understanding any ideological phenomenon at all (be it a picture, a piece of music, a ritual, or an act of human conduct) cannot operate without the participation of inner speech. All manifestations of ideological creativity – all other nonverbial signs – are bathed by, suspended in, and cannot be entirely segregated or divorced from the element of speech.[14]

The critical listener has her ear to the ideological ground. Language commutes and creates; it is the means by which power circulates along webs of knowledge and behavior. Awareness about the “how” of language, through a semiotic understanding of words themselves, places the critical listener at the intersection of signifier and sign.

Even though there is more to say, I will end here for now. Thanks for spending time “listening” to my ideas about three modalities of democratic listening: Mindful, Aesthetic, and Critical.

[1] Sherry Turkle. (2014). Reclaiming Conversation. New York: Penguin.

[2] Noam Chomsky. (1988). Current Issues in Linguistic Theory. New York: De Gruter Mounton. See also: Barman, B. (2014). The Linguistic Philosophy of Noam Chomsky. Philosophy and Progress51(1-2), 103–122.

[3] See Juilan Treasure at https://www.ted.com/talks/julian_treasure_5_ways_to_listen_better/transcript?language=en

[4] One of my favorite novelists, Robertson Davies, in relation to the mind and sight, writes, “the eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” From Tempest-Tost, p. 116, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England. For those readers who attribute the quote to someone else other than Davies, see: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2018/02/08/eye-sees/

[5] Jean Lave. “Situated Learning in Communities of Practice.” Retrieved from https://lagim.blogs.brynmawr.edu/files/2015/03/Situating-learning-in-CoPs.pdf

[6] Rowsell, Jennifer and Kate Pahl , “The Routledge Handbook of Literacy Studies” (Abingdon: Routledge, 26 May 2015 ), accessed 02 Dec 2021 , Routledge Handbooks Online.

[7] James Paul Gee (2014). The Social Mind: Language, Ideology, and Social Practice. New York: Common Ground Research Networks. See also: Alexandra Michel


[8] My thoughts about conviviality and community come in larger part from the work of Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality: https://monoskop.org/images/3/3e/Illich_Ivan_Tools_for_Conviviality_1975.pdf. See Ivan Illich. Deschooling Society: https://monoskop.org/images/1/17/Illich_Ivan_Deschooling_Society.pdf

[9] Louise M. Rosenblatt. (1988). “Writing and Reading: The Transactional Theory.” Technical Report No. 416. Center for the Study of Reading. A Reading Research Center and Education Report. New York University. Retrieved on December 3, 2021 at 4:00pm EST: https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/bitstream/handle/2142/18044/ctrstreadtechrepv01988i00416_opt.pdf

[10] Stuart Hall. (1973). “Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse.” Paper for the Council of Europe Colloquy on “Training in the Critical Reading of Televisual Language”. http://epapers.bham.ac.uk/2962/1/Hall%2C_1973%2C_Encoding_and_Decoding_in_the_Television_Discourse.pdf

[11] See Juilan Treasure at https://www.ted.com/talks/julian_treasure_5_ways_to_listen_better/transcript?language=en

[12] Paulo Freire’s last interview. (1996). https://youtu.be/aFWjnkFypFA

[13] Gloria Anzaldúa: excerpts from Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, “Lingusitic Terrorism.” http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/romance/spanish/219/13eeuu/anzaldua.html

[14] Valentin Nikolaevich Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, Seminar Press, in liaison with the Harvard Univerity Press and the Academic Press Inc., 1973: https://www.marxists.org/archive/voloshinov/1929/marxism-language.htm